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On My Mind, In My Face

Photo by David Farrell

It is quite possible that I was the only unhappy soul, among 3,000 or so ecstatic well-wishers, who failed to recognize the San Francisco Symphony’s recent appearance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — a.k.a. The MTT Homecoming — as a conflation of the Apocalypse, the Return of the Prodigal and a ninth-inning unassisted triple play at Dodger Stadium. Sure, the noises that night were pretty terrific — onstage and, at the end, among the helots out front. What any of this had to do with music, however, is the question I was obliged to face that night, and haven’t yet resolved.

It had been 16 years, give or take a couple of weeks, since Michael Tilson Thomas had last led a concert at the Pavilion. In 1984 he was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor, while also playing footsie with other orchestras around the world. His legend in this, the city of his nativity, was already overpowering, dating back to the days when, as a beardless USC undergrad, he served as spark plug to the Monday Evening Concerts; he seemed to have a hand in every progressive musical activity in town. He was our Lenny, in other words; his career, like that of Bernstein, had skyrocketed on the fact of his having stepped in for an ailing conductor (William Steinberg, of the Boston Symphony) at a big-time New York concert. By 1984 there were no limits to his horizon . . .

Except, that is, among a few unreconstructed grumblers who clung to the notion that great music making included a sense of respect for great music. Philharmonic honcho Ernest Fleischmann was one of these. During a guest-conducting stint here in the winter of ’84, Tilson Thomas seemed driven by strange demons; there was a performance of the Beethoven “Eroica” that I’d like to forget but can’t, grossly distorted, showoffish, bratty. When it was over, so was MTT’s career with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Philharmonic survived, and so did MTT. The forces of destiny ordained the San Francisco Symphony connection, and it flourishes. Even the muse of architecture has smiled on the union; the rebuilding of Davies Symphony Hall, coincidental with MTT’s arrival, has endowed the orchestra with an acoustic setting of fearsome efficiency. Every whisper on the stage comes out smack into the audience’s face; there’s none of the usual leakage of sound into the wings. An in-your-face sound for an in-your-face conductor: Talk about marriages made in heaven!

The Los Angeles gig suffered, as do all orchestras’ tour performances, from the Pavilion’s less-friendly acoustics, but not by much. The program here was pure in-your-face MTT. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was the centerpiece, the requisite offering to the gods of respectability, in a reading full of impressive brass orgasms but curiously devoid of the inner energy that should create the breathless onrush in the first movement, and terrify the hearer with spooks and mutterings in the amazing third. (Much as I hate the thought of bracketing these two podium panjandrums, this kind of static, shapeless performance is also exactly the way Zubi conducts Beethoven.) Aaron Copland’s Inscape began the evening; John Adams’ Harmonielehre ended it. Neither work particularly enhances its composer’s stature; both offer a conductor the chance, handsomely exploited by MTT that night, to raise the roof.

Copland’s brief (13-minute) score also provided MTT the chance to chat up the crowd — at the pre-concert talk and again from the podium — with “Aaron ’n’ me” anecdotes. Inscape, dating from 1967, has Copland in a sad final attempt to come to grips with 12-tone writing and turning out — as in the previous Connotations and the Piano Fantasy — an academic exercise in managing a technique for which he had little real sympathy. Why did he bother? Better Copland exists, and better Adams as well. Harmonielehre dates from 1985. Since then Adams has deepened and enriched his style to the point where this 40-minute “Great Prairie of Non-Event” (Adams’ words) seems like a canvas about to receive its first paint. Its orchestral noises are impressive, but we have heard them — better used, it breaks my heart to admit — in otherwise unrewarding works by Strauss and Sibelius. Why did MTT bother?

The papers and the slicks want us to believe that the future of the symphony orchestra lies along MTT’s paths, and he has in fact accomplished a fair amount to rekindle the love affair of city and orchestra that I remember from when I bused glasses in the Opera House bar in return for standing room at concerts led by Pierre Monteux. But the current talk of the dearth (or death) of great conducting — the notion that salvation lies only in the slick surfaces of MTT’s musical visions, however high the stack of Grammys — seems premature, to say the least.

Esa-Pekka Salonen will return soon enough; meanwhile, there is much to admire in the orchestra’s associate conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Two weeks ago I heard strong, beautifully balanced performances — best of all the Dvorák Eighth Symphony — under Mark Elder, in a program that, by some quirk of scheduling, was given only once. Last week Franz Welser-Möst managed to keep me awake and interested in the full span of the Bruckner Sixth; I also admired the crisp, nicely balanced sounds he drew from the cut-down orchestra behind young Till Fellner’s bright, sensible reading of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Earlier in the season I heard splendid music making under David Robertson and Yakov Kreizberg, and a ravishing account of the Fledermaus Overture (no easy work, that) under Manfred Honeck. Ingo Metzmacher and Adám Fischer come to the Philharmonic later this season. The phenomenal small dynamo Junichi Hirokami is listed among this summer’s conductors at the Hollywood Bowl. All this, in my book, counts as conduct becoming.

IN SELF DEFENSE: Last week some words by me — not in this publication — were quoted out of context in The New York Times and made into a rave review of the L.A. Opera’s Rigoletto, and my phone has been ringing with “How could you?” calls ever since. I couldn’t, and I didn’t. In my day at The New York Times, we had to learn to read before they let us write.